Giant Tidbits Colts Edition: Wins through the air, woes on the ground


The Giants went into Indianapolis looking for a victory that could help in the change of a team’s losing culture that has spanned many seasons. Although eliminated from the playoffs, head coach Pat Shurmur has continued the mantra of winning against the next team on the schedule as priority one. In the wake of a shutout handed to them by the Titans, the Giants’ offense was looking for some level of redemption. The first half brought just that for quarterback Eli Manning, who went 13 for 18 for 176 yards and a TD. Many have wondered what could be so different in consecutive weeks to account for such a starkly different performance? A wide range of factors have been cited, ranging from going from poor weather to a dome, to play design. Quite frankly, many of these narratives are simply grasping at straws.

Not all Cover 2 is the same

One aspect that really stands out on tape and that isn’t getting much attention is the difference in coverages between the Titans and the Colts. Secondary play is widely disregarded, partially because the broadcast angle fans see the game, and partially due to the lack of box score statistics for fans to consume that might provide insight. Let’s look at an example from the Titans game first to show their deceptive looks and movement from their secondary, both pre- and post-snap versus the Giants. Empty backfield sets were chosen because of how they usually reveal coverages easily and hamstring a defense in what they can hide. Please see the first example below:

Manning, both on this play and for this game, faces a secondary constantly changing and disguising its coverages. This takes pre- and post-snap diagnosing to eliminate and isolate elements all the way through to the progression. The confusion from the Titans forces Manning to throw the one-step hitch route of a Smash concept instead of reading the CB and giving the slot fade portion a chance. Being decisive is usually a positive trait, but the book is out on Manning. If you’re a defense, do all that is possible just before and after the snap to change looks to freeze his processing. Let’s look at a play against the Colts in a similar Cover 2 structure against another Giants empty backfield:

This play shows the Colts’ secondary with a much more vanilla look before and after the snap that frees up Manning to fit in a post route for a solid completion. As stated above, the goal in running empty backfield sets is to stretch out and reveal as much as possible about the defense pre-snap. The Titans showed how you can still disguise things, while the Colts stayed static. Manning seems to prefer static defenses, at least within the current playbook. Quite simply, not all Cover 2 coverages are the same.

Quick Hitting Floods

This column (and the author on Twitter) has described this season how the Giants run a lot of play-action into Flood concepts. The goal with these is to flood different levels of the defense with a receiver. Teams like the Rams use these concepts as a foundation of their passing attack for their simplicity, coupled with ease of “dressing up” and running them with many different nuances. The Giants prefer play-action and often a half or full bootleg from the QB with the receivers moving horizontally to the play side. Against the Titans, the Giants ran this three level Flood concept three times, completing once for 16 yards to Evan Engram. The limited use could be due to the athleticism of the OLB/edge rushers on the Titans. Against the Colts, it was a barrage of Flood concepts off of bootlegs.

Running anything seven times in a game where a QB is dropping back 30-40 times is a lot. Let’s look at a play in the first quarter on 2nd-and-5 where Manning finds tight end Scott Simonson for an 8-yard gain:

Many readers may ask, “where are the three levels on a play like this?” The Giants chose to run this as a quick-hitting pass relying on Manning’s play speed and challenging the linebacking group of the Colts. Notice the 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs) with formation into the boundary (FIB). This aspect, coupled with Ellison blocking down on the edge rusher, ensures that Simonson is effectively in a race to the flat with play-action as a massive speed bump for the LB, in either man or zone. Shurmur and many coordinators put players into conflict out of these setups, and when run early and often get Manning into a rhythm easily. Take a look at the image below:

Formation Into the Boundary

Speaking of FIB, the Giants featured a play way later in the 3rd quarter on a big pass to tight end Evan Engram. For those that may have missed it, I recently wrote a two-part series (Part 2 Link) presenting the idea that Engram play more of an H-Back role in the offense. One of the tenets of the piece is the ease of isolating on a linebacker from the backfield versus on the line or spread out in the slot. FIB sets this up, especially against base defenses that like to set their strong safety to the field or run two-high safeties often. Defenses also like to play their zone defenders in a pattern-match fashion, carrying vertical routes down the field. Such was the case with Engram’s catch in the 3rd quarter:

Engram on this completion (which should have really been a TD) shows his suddenness and burst down the field on his third or fourth gear against one of the best linebackers in the league. His 4.41 combine speed does not simply equate to separation against defensive backs automatically, and although he has come on recently, isolating these types of matchups is key for this offense.

Run Game Woes

Many are probably wondering how the Colts held Saquon Barkley to only 43 yards on 21 carries. Apparently, a misconception exists that running the ball against two-high safety looks is “easier” than against single high, or the “answer” to two-high. Please see the below:

The above not only shows there was film work on Christmas day, but also that there seems to be more to running the football than simple media narratives.  In a later Tweet from the above thread, I mention how the Giants were slightly better in 11 personnel than other, heavier packages. That was not the case with the below split-zone run, where the Colts stopped running back Saquon Barkley in the backfield for a loss:

The Colts ran “G” fronts with defensive tackles over the offensive guards or on their inside shoulder as 2i for many snaps against the Giants. This can make runs like power-gap scheme difficult, but the slants run against Big Blue wreaked havoc against many different schemes. Defenses like the Eagles often employ Fletcher Cox as a 2-tech but with the opposite DT in the 3-tech position. In recent weeks, the Titans and Redskins have used it successfully against the Giants. Please see below:

The Giants did not remain stubborn to interior runs, however. They ran outside zone variations six times this game, with only one of those runs going for negative yards. Immediately following the one negative play, Shurmur responded with the pin-pull variation on the left side to get to the edge against a single-high safety look. Please see below:

On this run, the pin-pull gets Barkley to the edge for a gain of six yards. Running in semi-traffic is an interesting trait that is not as instinctive as many believe. Barkley chooses to cut back aggressively against the grain, bursting effectively back into traffic. Ultimately, many zone runs are designed for this cutback, but this play was a great example of missing out on further big gains by abandoning the blocking structure.

This game had a lot of early optimism for the offense that was ultimately snuffed out by the reality of facing a playoff-caliber defensive unit. How a unit responds to adversity, like the issues in run game consistency, will be a big factor in setting up next season as a successful one. Despite limitations at the quarterback position and elsewhere, the offense responded with a very positive outing, even without star receiver Odell Beckham. The all too easy narratives provided by the media and elsewhere in regards to the running against two-high safeties and others were proven to be false. This week against the rival Cowboys, the Giants have another opportunity for more offensive micro-successes that can carry into 2019 and beyond.